Slavery in the American Republic: Developing the Federal Government, 1791-1861 by David F. Ericson (review)
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Slavery, Federal government, Politics, State development

Slavery in the American Republic: Developing the Federal Government, 1791-1861. By David F. Ericson. (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2011. Pp. ix, 298. Cloth, $37.50.)

The relationship of slavery and American politics is a historical perennial. In Slavery in the American Republic, political scientist David F. Ericson joins the discussion by emphasizing the positive role that the presence of slavery in the American republic played the development of the federal government. In the "traditional narrative," Ericson contends, slavery had little to do with the development of the American state, or, at most, slowed its rise (17). Ericson finds this narrative mistaken. The mordant warnings of slaveholders John Randolph and Nathanial Macon that federal public-works spending might establish precedents that could doom the "peculiar institution" were overblown and unrepresentative. More characteristic was the long involvement of the army in the Second Seminole War, a conflict that, in Ericson's view, was less about land hunger or anti-Native American prejudice than the elimination of a popular haven for escaped slaves. To make his point, Ericson proposes a number of counterfactuals that take the form of a syllogism: no slavery, less (federal) government.

Ericson freely concedes that his linkage of slavery and federal public policy is not exactly novel. Indeed, it is not altogether obvious how many historians, as opposed to political scientists, he would lump together in the "traditional" category. Don E. Fehrenbacher's The Slaveholding Republic (Oxford, UK, 2001) covered many of the same topics with greater authority, while Robin E. Einhorn's American Taxation, American Slavery (Chicago, 2006) deftly probed the relationship of slavery [End Page 368] and federal taxation. Ericson's innovation, rather, is to demonstrate quantitatively that slavery hastened "state development," a term of art for political scientists that Ericson equates not with the capacity of the state to attain specific goals, as earlier political scientists contended, but, rather, with the ability of federal officeholders to operate independently of constituent pressure.

Ericson opens his narrative in 1791, a convenient starting point, since it permits him to sidestep the vexed debate over the relationship of slavery to the federal Constitution. Following an opening chapter in which he distinguishes his approach from the various "politics and history" scholars (2) who persist in downplaying the power of the federal government in the early republic, Ericson devotes chapters to the cost of federal government involvement in the suppression of the international slave trade, the relocation of ex-slaves in Liberia, the capture of fugitive slaves, slavery-related military ventures, and the employment of slaves by the federal government. In the 1791-1861 period, Erickson contends, lawmakers devoted 2.8 percent of federal expenditures ($51 million) to slavery-related tasks. Of this total, over half—$30 million—went to the prosecution of the Second Seminole War, with an additional $10 million for Texas debt relief—an expenditure that he throws into the mix even though he is agnostic as to whether slaveholder-driven land hunger precipitated the Mexican-American War.

While Ericson displays considerable ingenuity in number crunching, his interest extends beyond the merely quantitative. How, he asks, did the presence of slavery hasten changes in state behavior that "in turn" led to state development (16)? To answer this question, he ventures a number of speculative claims. Proslavery federal activism, Ericson posits, probably increased the legitimacy of the federal government in the slaveholding states; the hiring of slaves at the Norfolk, Virginia, navy yard almost certainly emboldened middle-level federal administrators to invent novel protocols that increased their autonomy vis à vis their superiors; and the frequent deployment of the military to defend slaveholders' property rights explains the "fit" between the trajectory of state development in the United States and Europe (106). The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 posed a special interpretative challenge, since it perversely underscored the integral relationship of slavery to the expanding mandate of the federal government in the realm of civil rights: "The federal enforcement of the constitutional rights of Southern slaveholders to the return of their fugitive slaves during the 1850s was the most important antebellum [End Page 369] instance of...